Here is a list of the things that make me Not Pretty: I am too fat and too short. My nose is the wrong shape, and it sticks out too far. My hair is thin, coarse, and frizzy and is impossible to wrangle, perennially stuck in a state between wavy and curly. My eyes are small, lightly hooded, and slanted. My skin prickles with heat rash at the slightest temperature change. My gender presentation is ambiguous/messy, but it doesn’t read as androgynous the same way it would if I were taller and slimmer with smaller boobs and smaller hips and a smaller butt. Those boobs would maybe work for me if I was still trying to play in the straight world, but I gave that up for good a while ago. (I want them gone and would love to give them to a trans woman who wants them; the future is not yet here.)
I am not sharing all of this to make you feel sorry for me or to complain about my lot in life. My lot in life is very chill right now. There is a point, and it resonates far beyond me.
These ways in which I am not ‘pretty’ also, coincidentally, are the ways in which I diverge from Western white beauty standards. I look like the Eurasian Jewish peasant stock I am (which makes me still read as white in the US, my biggest advantage in this whole rigged game; it has gone a long way toward protecting me, as it does for everyone it touches). The further one gets from the beauty-standard base, as many have written about, the more troublesome one becomes; the ways that, for example, black women’s bodies are criminalized, fetishized, and discriminated against become markedly enhanced and made more likely as the number of ways in which they fail to meet Western white beauty standards increases.
If I only had one or two of the attributes I listed, or if they were less exaggerated than they are, I’d probably still be able to access the relative power and visibility that adherence to beauty standards allows — on the bench instead of out of the game. I’ve been aware of this from the age of about five or so, when I would write in my diary that I wanted to be taller, big-eyed, snub-nosed, straight-haired. I also wanted a less “ethnic” name and name-brand clothes for the same reason. I couldn’t have cared less about the physical realities of these things, but I internalized what they symbolized before I could name them: I saw how people treated my prettier, richer classmates with respect, while I was invisible at best and the target of some pretty severe bullying, including sexual abuse, at worst. (The ugly girl? You can use her.) As a teen, I used to lie in bed at night pressing on the bump in my nose and the pad of fat under my chin, thinking about how I could never afford plastic surgery, starving and dizzy because all I had eaten that day was a few saltines and a handful of baby carrots, worrying at my hair that was falling out from the lack of nutrition (and hard drug abuse, though that is a separate story). Though I have learned great eating habits and am healthy and clean these days, the specter of that eating disorder will be with me my whole life. That is what an addiction is. I got my shit together roughly in my mid-twenties, and, even if I never relapse (I have relapsed far more often around food than around substances, because food is something you have to think about to survive), these things will be my shadows until I die.
The point here is not my self-esteem, which was of course in the garbage for a very long time for a variety of reasons. Again, I don’t want you to feel sorry for me. This shit is fucked up, but I have done a fuckload of work around it and I am doing fine. The point is power. The point is that I just wanted to be treated with that kind of respect too. The point is that I think everyone is entitled to that kind of basic human respect, regardless of what’s up with their flesh cages and personal lives.
This is one of the reasons that the control of women like Lena Dunham and Amy Schumer, who diverge in very very small ways from mainstream white Western beauty standards, over the “pretty privilege” narrative really bothers me—they still have far more access to that kind of power and respect than I will. Locked out of the game as I am, I’m further ahead in the crowd to get in than many, many others, as a white and fairly small tubbo. A white cis woman who’s a size 6–8 and above 5'2" with maybe a couple of “ugly” features is really, really not that different from a model, in the grand scheme of treatment. She’s far closer to the ideal than I can ever imagine being. Sure, that small divergence is worth noting, and I’m not saying that thin white cis women don’t experience a plethora of patriarchal bullshit around their looks. But proximity to the winner’s circle affects your perspective. How can it not? What about all the people who are further away? Do they have space and platforms to talk about what they experience too? Or is the narrative completely overloaded with one particular sort of voice? This is not something that quota-diversity will fix. This is only fixable by people who truly value different perspectives, different experiences, different lives.
I’ve never lacked for sexual or romantic partners. Contrary to popular narrative and/or Shitheads On The Internet, being fat and/or ugly doesn’t cause a scarcity of interest, even from (who knew!) conventionally attractive people. Finding partners who desire me and love me for who I am (not what I represent to them) has been more of a challenge, but it is so for everyone, and I’m not lacking in that regard either. I’m funny and smart and talented and hardworking and charismatic. Those go a long way toward attraction too, by the way. This isn’t me telling you that adherence to beauty standards doesn’t matter in that world; this isn’t some blithe “confidence matters more than looks!” Lean In garbage take recycled in any women’s magazine from the sexual revolution into infinity. What I’m saying is that the purely physical is only one of many factors. We overvalue it in culture but the sexual and romantic field is actually far more fair than others in practice.
Where the problem really lies is with economic opportunity and access: again, power. I have been told many, many times by many, many people that the various bands that I have sung in would be more popular if I was conventionally pretty and/or conventionally feminine (the fact that I am skeeved out by nearly every aspect of the PR hustle and whatever “music industry success” means doesn’t help either). I don’t photograph well, or at least I’ve maybe met two photographers in my lifetime who know how to shoot me. I have been passed over for jobs in every single industry I’ve been in for candidates who were far less qualified but far more “attractive” (this is at a new high for me, matched only by the restaurant/bar industry, now that I am in the media world full-time). The people who have believed in me and given me a shot have been the ones who used my talent, skills and experience as their guides rather than my looks. I am grateful for them.
But because I have always been on the outside I am also keenly aware of how many of us there are out here, losing opportunities and getting paid less and being overlooked until someone sees that we’re grinding far harder and far longer than our prettier (which also means, in many cases, though obviously not mine, whiter) compatriots. Sure, we’ve all got insane work ethics and laser-honed skills now. I am in a way thankful for that; I have never in my life had any opportunity handed to me, and I have always had to scrap, always had to be the best I possibly could. I’d probably be a lot lazier and maybe less principled if I had things handed to me now and again. Which would mean I would be more of a dickhead, and also not as good at what I do. But that doesn’t mean that putting in 1000x the work for 1/100 of the opportunity doesn’t really, really suck.
What I want is for all of those vital and important voices grinding and grinding and grinding away to be considered for more than our faces and bodies, more than our branding potential. I want everyone to be like my current boss and hire based on qualifications and skill, and, once you’re in that position, treat you with professional respect and chances for advancement as long as you do good work. I am watching things change slowly in my small corner of the industry as people with feminist and womanist ethics start to ascend to editorial and directorial positions, bringing stunningly talented writers who might have been shut out in the old system with them, but we are far, far from there yet, and we still have so much to dismantle and rebuild. I am doing my part with whatever small power and reach I have now and I will in the future. Will you?
Thanks to Alesia Pullins (the best beauty writer you’re sleeping on), Julie Lauren Vick (fiction writer extraordinaire), Christina Kara (feminist textile lab inspiration and sender of cat picture texts), and Daniel Ralston (about to take over the television industry), for having conversations with me that advanced my thinking for this essay. You are all wonderful friends and I love you very much.